"RKO Lost & Found" at the Roxie

Dennis Harvey November 23, 2007

As buffs know, the majority of films made by 1930 are considered lost — no prints are known to exist, or the ones that did exist have crumbled into dust due to the unstable, disintegrating nature of the era’s celluloid. But movies can become “lost” in other ways, too, and I’m not just talking those that don’t get released on DVD because they’re unpopular, uncommercial, or just bad. Probably the most widespread yet seldom-discussed reason why a feature can vanish from access these days is due to legal problems. Sometimes a producer owes the lab or his funders money, and can’t spring the film loose until he’s paid up (one Ed Wood Jr. movie remained a lab hostage until well after his death).

Sometimes distribution rights are being fought over by different parties, making it impossible to show or sell until the conflict is resolved. (I remember years ago going to see Jodorowsky’s “Holy Mountain” at a local rep house, only to be told an interested party had literally seized the film cans moments before, having learned a private collector’s print of the then legally impounded film was being shown at a commercial venue.) Sometimes an individual owner dies, or corporation goes under, leaving a movie without any ownership at all. Dickens’ novel Bleak House is about a lawsuit that’s dragged through the courts for decades, drawing in ever more plaintiffs for ever-dwindling potential rewards. More than a few films have suffered a similar fate, going unseen while their rights hang in legalistic limbo.

Sometimes there’s a happy ending, though. One is being told this week at the Roxie, where the six features in the week-long “RKO: Lost and Found” series are being seen for the first time in 50 (and in one case 70) years. Why such a long absence? Yup: Legal stuff.

The six were all produced between 1933 and 1938 by RKO Radio Pictures, a now little-remembered studio that was at the time one of Hollywood’s “Big Five.” It left its mark in a slew of classics including the Astaire-Rogers musicals, the original “King Kong,” “Citizen Kane,” and many notable film noirs, but more or less died out in the 1950s. (The biggest reason for its collapse was dreadful mismanagement by eccentric multimillionaire Howard Hughes, who’d purchased it in the prior decade.) For reasons still rather fuzzy — beyond the fact that his wife starred in one picture — “Kong” creator and onetime RKO executive Mercian C. Cooper purchased the complete rights to these particular films in 1946 as part of a legal settlement. Ten years later, five of the six were briefly shown on television. Then another legal dispute commenced over them between Cooper and another ex-RKO exec. Both of them died long before a viewer’s query last year alerted Turner Classic Movies to the fact that these half-dozen titles had never aired on the cable channel — despite TCM’s otherwise owning the entirety of the RKO library. Ted Turner’s legal folk weighed in, and voila! — the films were soon restored, ready for broadcast and rep-cinema screening.

So, what we’ve got here is a somewhat arbitrary but still fascinating selection of forgotten movies from a great studio in the middle of Hollywood’s “golden” 1930s. Several of them are light romances: 1933’s “Rafter Romance” has Ginger Rogers as a hard-pressed working girl in the depths of the Depression whose landlord forces her to “time-share” an attic with a nightwatchman (Norman Foster) when she gets way behind on the rent. Naturally, mutual annoyance leads to love. Five years later, it was remade as “Living on Love,” starring the forgotten duo of Whitney Bourne and James Dunn. “Double Harness,” another 1933 title, finds sensible socialite Ann Harding wearing down the marital resistance of bachelor playboy William Powell.

A big star in the early 1930s whose career was killed by too many mediocre vehicles, Harding started out on Broadway-as did Irene Dunne, who seldom got to sing onscreen during a filmography filled with heavy dramas and screwball comedies. If nothing else, 1934’s “Stingaree” should have curio value: She plays a 19th century Australian opera singer (!) who falls for a Richard Dix’s bandit-slash-songwriter (!!).

The other two films are straight-up dramas. “One Man’s Journey” (1933 again) has Lionel Barrymore as a small-town doctor whose life of tireless service and self-sacrifice is only appreciated after his death. Five years later (is there an echo in this room?), it was remade as “A Man to Remember,” with Edward Ellis taking the same role. Earnest but never preachy or mawkish, this well-crafted version was named one of 1938’s ten best films by the New York Times. Yet it virtually hasn’t been seen since then — for whatever reason, it was the only title among these six that was never shown on TV. It’s so rare the only existing print was found in the Netherlands — hence the Dutch subtitles you’ll be seeing at the Roxie.

There’s one more movie in the “RKO Lost & Found” series, though in fact it’s a fondly regarded minor classic that’s never really been “lost.” That would be “Lady for a Day,” which Frank Capra directed just before his big breakthrough with “It Happened One Night.” “Lady” stars the delightful May Robson as “Apple Annie,” a streetwise old NYC dame who poses as a society matron to fool the daughter she’s had raised in seclusion, away from her own disreputable existence. This charming comedy hasn’t been locked away in a vault for 70 years, but it’s still a pleasure to see it back on the big screen.